When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected President of the French Republic, I was shocked. It is easy with hindsight to detect how his rise to power had been almost unavoidable, but to teenage me and my friends, seeing Sarkozy’s brand of conservatism, authoritarianism, and laissez-faire capitalism grab the Elysée was, at first, incomprehensible. A lot of liberal-leaning French were expecting Sarkozy’s main opponent, Ségolène Royal, to win.
Running for the French Parti Socialiste (PS), Royal was far from a leftist’s ideal candidate. She represented a generation of politicians in training under François Mitterrand’s 14 years in power (back in the day, a French president was elected for 7 years, as opposed to 5 years after 2002) that had seen the socialists converted to austerity (under the guise of “fiscal rigor”), the development of policing, and the preservation of the 1958 Constitution of the 5th Republic (which Mitterrand had before described as a regime of “permanent coup” but then gladly adopted for his own). She was notoriously of the more right-leaning socialists, particularly on the question of the 35-hours working week, which she was dangerously unclear about, and her hard-tone policy proposals when it came to security (which included putting first offenders as young as 16 years old in the hands of the army, believing that some time in a training camp would turn them into proper citizens). Overall the liberal candidate was running on a platform of socially comprehensive economic liberal policies and the “law and order” regimen that was becoming standard in French politics after the PS had been beat in the polls by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far right Front National, with a fine coating of inclusive bullshit. The possibility of her being the country’s first female president was a part of the campaign both in a positive — there was a degree of communication to this choice, beside the inherent change of seeing one of the two “government parties” of the country picking a female candidate, which the communist left had done since the 1970s in the person of union figure Arlette Laguiller — and in a negative way — a lot of Royal’s contenders both within her own party and in her opposition relied on explicitly sexist language to decry her, in the image of PS national figure Laurent Fabius, wondering about “Who would take care of her children” if she was to be elected. Despite these retrograde evocations, the idea that she would probably be the country’s next leader was supported by Royal’s image as a member of a (relatively) new generation of politicians in a country used to be governed by proper antiquities, the unequivocal fatigue surrounding the dying star of the right that was Jacques Chirac, political infighting within the conservative movement, and more importantly, the cognitive impossibility for a lot of people to articulate the terms “President Nicolas Sarkozy”.
Whoever Royal was at the time, she and all of the other actors of the campaign — from corporate environmentalist Nicolas Hulot and his environmental pact to the pathetic attempts by right-leaning technocratic centrist François Bayrou to appear as a strong hot-headed guy (which had in the past included slapping a random kid during a public meeting) — appear as having been but the supporting cast to the campaign’s vast and irrepressible obsession with Sarkozy’s figure, starting before he even was a candidate. The French presidential election has regularly been described as “a special meeting between and man and a nation”, a narrative very convenient to legitimise the flawed and autocratic nature of a system centered around the rejection of any semblance of checks and balances and putting as much power as possible in the hands of whoever wins our once-every-five-times race. Regardless of this pseudo-heroic lie, the political class, the media, and seemingly a huge part of the public (including the left) were in agreement with making Sarkozy the lead character of the story. And quite the character he was.
A year before he announced his candidacy, a short book by Jean-Jacques Reboux, An Open Letter to Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister of Police Freedoms had found its way into my hands and made for a disturbing read: in it, the author recounted the violent treatment he had suffered at the hands of the police, one of the officers sneering at the author, “You’re lucky he isn’t President yet” as he was asked if his Minister would like for it to be known that his jackboots like to beat down journalists in police vans for minor offenses. And the cops had every reason to love him. Sarkozy had been Chirac’s ruthless and notoriously pro-police Minister of the Interior, “First cop of the country”, between 2002 and 2004, and 2005 and 2007, a period that had only seen the growth in importance of both his office and the topic of interior security, and been interrupted by his very short tenure as a Minister of Finances. Sarkozy’s style as a member of government was a combination of vulgarity, brutality, and fascination for the new technologies, underlied by an undeniable racism combined by his ability to mobilise equivoques and dogwhistles when it came to the “racailles” (a gross equivalent of “riffraff” used to indirectly evoke Arab men) and his desire to “karcherise” (in reference to the famous brand of pressure washers) the “banlieues”, the French suburbs where working-class people and racialised minorities (often one and the same) had been concentrated since the 1960s, and where social movements had erupted after two kids, Zied Benna and Bouna Traoré, had died seeking refuge from the police in an electrical substation. While eruptions of anger were common in the banlieues, especially as policing was becoming increasingly violent, Sarkozy’s only response was to call for more troops and adopt a “clean up the filth” rhetoric. He took most of his inspirations from the USA: Sarkozy was a firm believer in the broken window theory, the militarisation of policing, biometric profiling, believed crime to be pedictable by genetics and caused by immigration.
All of this was served by a well curated communication strategy aimed at presenting him as a popular strongman speaking the language of the people: when confronted to critiques during his mandate, Sarkozy would erupt in insults and threats, calling on his interlocutors to “come and tell that to my face if you’re a man”, or to “fuck off, jerk”. These “slip-ups” were actually very well-curated elements of language from a rich kid pretending to espouse the codes of the working class, Sarkozy having always lived in the golden ghettos of Neuilly-sur-Seine and the discreet charms of bourgeois Paris. But he loved to sell himself as a man of the people. In a country where the political elite likes to present itself as refined and cultured, Sarkozy was vulgar and gross: he didn’t care for books (which for a French president is a cardinal sin), loved to show himself off at sports, especially cycling and jogging, didn’t give a shit about gastronomy, or the theater, or music except for a well-curated group of popular artists like rock star Johnny Hallyday, a national darling especially among middle class baby boomers. His racism was similarly framed as “merely saying out loud what everybody thinks deep down” (a slogan he had stolen from Le Pen’s catalogue). According to Italian anarchist and antifascist figure Camillo Berneri, a defining feature of fascist leaders is their ability to tap into the national zeitgeist and play the part as great actors, encouraging an “us versus them” rhetoric and demonising internal enemies as well as anything that might prevent them from accruing power, which allows them to serve the ruling class while appearing as petulant disturbers of the status quo. Sarkozy may be the most skilled politician the French political machine has ever shat out to play this kind of act. And so we got what we had all been prepared for over the past five years.
The ten days separating Sarkozy’s election from the beginning of his tenure as a head of state were symbolic of what the presidency would be: having campaigned as a decent, level-headed dude for the last days of the campaign, Sarko could finally lash out. His election party was a festival of bling in one of Paris’ most expensive restaurants, accompanied by CEOs, actors, and cronies of all kinds. He promised going on a religious retreat to take inspiration for his upcoming role, and spent it partying on his friend Vincent Bolloré’s new yacht. While the public was already getting outraged by the man’s total lack of self awareness, there was reason to party behind the scenes: after all, Sarkozy had promised to his billionaire friends a new regimen of tax cuts, privatisations, including the prised jewels that were the Post Office and the French railways, cut downs on the French universal healthcare and social safety nets, and an overall discourse of putting the lazy French back to work by promoting a dog-eat-dog kind of economy in which the only increase to one’s income could be attained by working more and at the detriment of others, and a serious attack on unions, instituting a minimal service in public services that meant it became effectively illegal to have the kind of complete strikes that had prevented loss of status in the past (“Nowadays, nobody even notices when there’s a strike anymore”, would he cheer with glee a few years later). Nevertheless all of this was mostly depoliticised: the “necessary reforms” were considered by his administration as consensual as doing the opposite was to be during the short and mostly capital-supporting “stimulus” taking place after the 2008 crash (anecdotally, Sarkozy had been a supporter of importing reverse mortgages in the country). Sarkozy’s srongmanism was his most defining feature, and the rest of his policy was made to follow: he was mostly a laissez-faire capitalist and a partisan of importing neoliberalism in France, but would later sing the song of “moralising capitalism” and supporting Main Street against the follies of Wall Street. The economy, which would by virtue of the 2008 crisis become one of the primary topics of his mandate, was not his issue (so long as his rich donors kept on seeing less regulation and public service cuts). His things were national identity, and security.
And when he took up his new job, the whirlwind began. As a student of Political Science during the years of Sarkozy’s mandate (I entered the university in 2008, after a year and a half of Sarkozy’s bullshit), I remember some of my (especially conservative) teachers telling us in class how utterly incomprehensible the president was to them: his policy style relied on starting a new law project a day, mostly inspired by whatever tragic story was in the news that day (the killing of a child by a pittbull got us weeks of debates and a new law on the owning of dangerous dogs, for instance), and reassuring the hard right by infusing the state’s discourse with racist obsessions (both in terms of actual action, like benchmarking the arrests of undocumented migrants, leading to situations where the same person could be arrested and let go several times in a row, because it would improve the cops’ numbers. Expulsions were not only a state policy: for the cops, retention facilities-building companies (as the construction of prisons was one of the promising sectors opened by the right-wing’s new law on public-private partnerships to private bidders), flight companies and a whole host of other actors, they were a business as well. Sarkozy’s ability to “trigger the left” — or as it was known at the time, being “politically incorrect” — was a part of what his cronies liked about him. Because he had cronies: his mandate was littered with suspicions of corruption, from the weird attempt from his highschool-graduate son to secure a position as director of the EPAD, a public office managing the Parisian business-sector of La Défense (a very well-paying position) to the more worrying suspicions of corruption involving figures like French billionaire Liliane Bettencourt, or Libyan dictator Muhammar al-Gaddhafi. It is to be noted that Sarkozy was the only candidate whose campaign budget were never validated, leading to his party organising a weird-ass telethon to ask their base to reimburse them instead of the state.
The most emblematic policy of Sarkozy’s identitarian agenda was perhaps the constitution of a Minsitry to “National Identity and Immigration”, in charge of both proceeding to the aforementioned terrorising and profiting off France’s population of undocumented workers, and of reframing the country’s culture and identity around the obsessions of the right: whiteness and conservatism, wrapped in a dual discourse of perverted secularism and the glorification of the country’s “Judeo-Christian roots and values”. If his style was untidy and amateurish, the agenda was in retrospect particularly efficient: Sarkozy was pursuing on that matter his political side had opened with trial balloons like a law mandating the teaching of “the positive aspects” of the French colonial empire in schools, but where they had failed for being too discreet, his hot-headed, culture war-ish style ensured the public debate would be in a constant state of outrage, and even if everything didn’t pass, enough harm would be done in the long run. The crown jewel of this Ministry was the “great debate on national identity” that was launched in the middle of the greatest economic crisis of the century, the main issue of which was the implicit question of the “Compatibility between France and Islam”, which reinforced the reframing Sarkozy was imposing on the French brand of secularism, laïcité, not as a tool for the mediation between the state and religion, but as a weapon to be wielded against a specific religion, conceived as a problem. Having pretended to be the great conciliator by putting forward the few hand-picked members of his government that were either from the political or racial “diversity”, while his Minister for National Identity was explaining about Arabs that “it’s okay when there’s just the one, but when there are too many, the problems begin”, the second half of Sarkozy’s mandate was about masks off (forthcoming pun not intended). The last years of his tenure were marked by a law prohibiting the Islamic veils hiding the wearer’s face (under the pretense of prohibiting all masks in public space), and the ever-increasing importance of his councellor Patrick Buisson, a far-right former political journalist hellbent on turning the French Overton window as far right as possible. When the Minister of cops explained that “All civilisations aren’t worth the same” in February 2012, after five years of tracking and racist dogwhistling, people still played the part of the shock, but nobody was surprised anymore.
In 2012, after five years of Sarkozysm, the political ambience in France was exhausted, which didn’t mean he had failed in any significant way, at least politically: willy-nilly, his presidency had gone from a cognitive impossibility, to obvious. Those who had been claiming in 2007 that Sarkozy’s figure was not dignified enough to withstand the level of respect expected from the Constitution were largely proven wrong: he had bent the institution to his figure, and it had taken little less than a few calm words from his part and a trickle-down “stimulus package” to put every political journalist in line and get his attitude framed as “presidential”. The one media that would constantly push against this narrative, Mediapart (a news organisation specifically created to face Sarkozy’s presidency, and responsible for the revelation of several of his corruption affairs) would in turn be framed as a “trotskyte operation” by members of the majority, and demonised as well. And because of all this, stepping out of his presidency was, to me and some of my friends, like waking up from a weird dream. I think it is hardly contentious to say that a lot of people saw Sarkozy’s fall mostly as a return to normalcy. “Normal” was the one thing his opponent, and successor, François Hollande, was about, after all. His campaign was all about keeping his cool (even when covered in flour by a random dude during a meeting, which was pretty hilarious in retrospect), and going back to “a normal presidency”.
We wouldn’t hear too much about him, he promised, and even though his platform included some lip service to his socialist origins (the infamous 75% marginal tax rates on great fortunes, which would never see the light of day of course), Hollande’s image was mostly that of a harmless, witless little man, especially to those of us whose perspective was biased by his common caricature on the Guignols de l’Info: barely knowing where he was, the puppet-version of Hollande would melt away in an awkward laughter at the slightest form of opposition. Never has a politician worn a more appropriate nickname than Hollande, whose infamous monicker evoked the sort of structureless egg pudding we all enjoyed with our school lunch desserts. And in front of Sarkozy’s reinvigorated rabidness, a structureless egg pudding was probably the best thing we were hoping for. Especially a structureless egg pudding promising us fifteen times in a row in the infamous anaphor he used in the presidential debate that “I, President of the Republic”, would never bother you by being a weird-ass authoritarian and self-obsessed clown like the guy on the other side of the table, basically. So Flamby was elected and we all looked forward to going back to normal.
And then we didn’t. (tbc)